Blog: Yes, Men Funded Suffrage Movement

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(WOMENSENEWS)–On March 28, Women’s eNews distributed a commentary written by Helen LaKelly Hunt, a well-known feminist philanthropist, in which she wrote: “Some years ago, while reading through the letters of 19th century suffrage leaders, I uncovered a sad but shocking fact: It was largely men who funded the suffrage movement.”

For more information:

Helen LaKelly Hunt, “Sharing the Wealth: Female Philanthropists Open Up”
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3111/

Carol J. Andreae, “My Million Dollar Commitment: Serious Change”
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3012/

The Sister Fund
http://www.sisterfund.org

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.


Not so, responded one reader, Doris Weatherford, author of “A History of the American Suffragist Movement,” published by ABC-Clio in 1998.

Please correct today’s huge misstatement, she wrote. “Although there was a Men’s League of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, it was fairly late in time, and women’s purses sustained the movement for decades. The two biggest contributors–beyond the million-dollar level–were Miriam Leslie and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont.”


Blogger Mary Peterson Hartzler, also known as Daughter of No Comment, remarked that Hunt’s statement that women controlled 51 percent of the nation’s wealth was misleading. “While the percentage number sounds very good it may mean less progress that it sounds like. Money in one’s name is meaningless unless one also has control of this money. In the case of inherited wealth, many times, trustees have the actual power to decide what the named person may do with ‘her’ money and she may have this money in name only and cannot use it freely to implement her ideas and-or goals. Actually the money can be in her name but when she dies, she cannot change the way the original donor of the money set up the trusts or who they go to.


Sally Roesch Wagner, executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, N.Y., weighed in later in the week, with an entire essay on women funding women’s rights:

“Who would be free must contribute towards that freedom.” Suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote those words in 1880 when not a single United States woman with money had given $1 million–much less $25,000–to the cause of women. It would be another 30 years before the first million-dollar female donor would fund woman’s rights.

When the woman’s movement emerged in the 1840s, the conditions for female philanthropy largely didn’t exist, both legally and psychologically. Women were considered “dead in the law” once they married, leaving them with no legal rights to their children, their bodies or their money. With no access to their own funds–their purse strings controlled by father, husband, even sons–women’s rights activists in the 1840s and 1850s faced a catch-22: They were hard-pressed to fund their campaign for property rights because they had no legal right to their property with which to fund it!

The early feminists had no ongoing funding plan when they began their yearly national conventions in 1850. A grassroots movement, they made up their actions as they went along, and were “funded by individual contributions as needs arose” in resourceful ways. They asked their friends for money and dug deep into their own pockets. There was no Ms. Foundation or Sister Fund, and no philanthropic organizations were willing to support their lobbying efforts for social justice. As the movement grew with national conventions galvanizing local actions on every issue from “Equal Pay for Equal Work” (a well-established phrase by 1855) to a woman’s right to her own body, funding did not keep pace.

By 1857 the movement faced serious financial problems and canceled the annual national convention. In this bleak moment, not a single woman of wealth stepped forward, pocketbook in hand. It was men who did.

Francis Jackson of Boston came to the rescue in 1858 with an endowment of $5,000, which the trustees nearly doubled before it was exhausted. Jackson saw the need for women’s rights when his daughter, Eliza Eddy, stood powerless as her husband seized their two young daughters and spirited them off to Europe. Inspired by his personal experience, Jackson stepped forward with the first major movement funding

Money follows money, and the next year another Bostonian, Charles Hovey, endowed a $50,000 trust fund for “the promotion of the anti-slavery cause and other reforms,” including women’s rights. When a third man, Poughkeepsie brewer Matthew Vassar, stepped forth the same year with $400,000 to found Vassar College “for girls, equal in all respects to Yale and Harvard,” the suffragists challenged:

“Is it not strange that women of wealth are constantly giving large sums of money to endow professorships and colleges for boys exclusively–to churches and to the education of the ministry, and yet give no thought to their own sex–crushed in ignorance, poverty and prostitution–the hopeless victims of custom, law and Gospel, with few to offer a helping hand, while the whole world combine to aid the boy and glorify the man? With the exception of $1,000 from Lydia Maria Child, we have yet to hear of a woman of wealth who has left anything for the enfranchisement of her sex. Almost every daily paper heralds the fact of some large bequest to colleges, churches and charities by rich women, but it is proverbial that they never remember the Woman Suffrage movement that underlies in importance all others.”

Hetty Green (1834-1916), who became the richest woman in America–worth between $100 million and $200 million–contributed nearly $400,000 to construct a boys’ school in New York state. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe (1828-1887) gave gifts and endowments totaling a million dollars to churches and help to aged and infirm clergy, the Children’s Aid Society, a Home for Incurables and Union College–which was closed to women when Elizabeth Cady Stanton tried to attend.

Schuyler Colfax, vice president of the United States, commented: “To every other reform there has been much money paid, but you women put your hands in your own pockets and carry this work on.”

Matilda Joslyn Gage announced in the August 1880 issue of the National Citizen and Ballot Box, that “Our N.W.S.A. (National Woman Suffrage Association) work is languishing for lack of sufficient money in its treasury.” It was a critical moment, as “the Woman Suffrage reform is at that point of its advance when a large amount of money could in various ways be profitably used.” Women with money must step forward, she insisted: “From those women who have money, much is expected, for in their hands lies the power to make the dumb speak; the power to make the silent pen use its magic force; the power to scatter far and wide the knowledge of our demands; the power to bring together the eloquent voice and the listening ear; the reading eye and the written word. From those women to whom much as been given, much is expected.”

Two years later, in 1882, a woman to whom much had been given began women’s funding in earnest. Eliza Eddy was the daughter of the movement’s first funder, Francis Jackson–the woman who lost her children when her husband, within the rights a father held, took them to Europe without her consent. With a $50,000 bequest (two-thirds of her entire fortune) Eddy left the first major endowment from a woman to the woman’s rights movement. Diplomatically, she divided the money equally between the two wings of the movement, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association.

The suffragists lauded Eddy “as the first woman who has given alike her sympathy and her wealth to this momentous and far-reaching reform” and challenged other women of wealth to follow its example: “This heralds a turn in the tide benevolence,” they rejoiced, “when, instead of building churches and monuments to great men, and endowing colleges for boys, women will make the education and enfranchisement of their own sex the chief object of their lives. We trust that Mrs. Eddy’s example may not be lost on the coming generation of women.” It would be, however, another generation before her example was followed.

With the merger of the two wings of the movement, into the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, the woman’s rights movement was replaced by a movement exclusively focused on gaining the right the vote. Dropping the more contentious issues of wage equity, body rights and feminist theology made the movement more respectable and the scale of women’s funding increased accordingly. We don’t know the total of what Alva Belmont eventually gave to woman suffrage, but it was “hundreds of thousands of dollars, both state and national.” Belmont was the first large movement donor since Eliza Eddy, almost 30 years before.

The first million-dollar donor to woman’s rights did not appear until 1914–a full 66 years after the movement organized–and only six years short of the final suffrage victory when Mrs. Frank (Miriam) Leslie (she took her husband’s name legally after his death) left almost a million dollars in her will. Three, perhaps four women in the 72 years of its existence gave significant amounts of money to fund that movement which, as Stanton and Gage said, “underlies in importance all others.”

“The anti-slavery cause,” Gage wrote, “had many wealthy friends who poured out money for its accomplishment. The same may be said of temperance. But the rights of woman, that great recognition of the equal humanity of one-half the people, has fought its own way until the whole earth is filled with knowledge of its demands.”

What would have been the course of our history if 10, 20 or a hundred of the thousands of women who could afford it would have followed the lead of Eliza Eddy? Each influx of money into a legislative campaign brought victory. Would it have taken 72 years to get the vote if women of means had put their money into the cause? Would women have spent almost 100 years without reproductive rights if the movement could have publicized–and fought–the almost invisible erosion of all the safe and effective methods of birth control available by 1850, as the religious conservatives enacted state and national legislation removing even the knowledge of it from women? And what of our history? Would we today face the presidential election of 2008 with a different attitude if we had learned in grade school that a lawyer, Belva Lockwood, ran for president in 1884 on the Equal Rights party ticket with a platform stating “War is a barbarism of the past?”

It’s too late to change all that. But it’s not too late to change the course of the history we are creating today. Women are doing just that. For the first time in the history of the world, women of means are funding their cause: the cause of women.

“This heralds a turn in the tide of benevolence,” our suffragist sisters predicted. They gave us a blueprint for the work still to be done and the means to do it. Women are joining together today to overcome the remaining psychological barriers, the fears and hesitations that have kept them from using their resources to change the world. The conditions have finally been achieved; the legal and social and psychological foundation upon which to build a movement of giving by women for women.

“Who would be free must contribute towards that freedom,” Gage wrote. It is an extraordinary moment, a rare opportunity to do it right this time, to do it big and to do it bold. The history of women will be transformed in the process.


In another e-mail, Sally K. Lindsey, a historian based in Florida, pleaded with Women’s eNews: “Don’t take the men out of the suffrage story.” She wrote:

It is true that Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Miriam Leslie both gave money to the Women’s Suffrage Movement; however, it is also true that women’s fight for the vote lasted approximately 70 years and over the course of those many decades there were many funders. Which is not to diminish the contributions of Alva and Miriam; their donations were very important and aided in the final push of the movement. However, their funding stories represent only two people among the many who supported the work.

For example, Susan B. Anthony started her weekly journal The Revolution in 1868 with the $600 in backing from independently wealthy George Francis Train.

Emma Smith DeVoe by 1890 had turned her full attention to the campaign for suffrage. She was given small stipends from the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, but by far, her greatest backer was her husband, who worked for the railroads and supplied his wife with both money and railway passes.

Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, the editors of The Masses magazine (1911-1917) were supporters as well of women’s suffrage. Eastman was the founder and the head of the Men’s League for Women Suffrage in New York City. In fact, one of the reasons for the founding of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was for a funding shelter because the New York attorney general ruled that pro-suffrage organizations (but not anti-suffrage) could not have more than $10,000 in their campaign chests. Many men created branches and joined these leagues in order to help women fund suffrage. (Part of a discussion on ‘Male Support for Female Suffrage in April 1996’ is found at http://www.h-net.org/~women/threads/disc-malesupport.html

Several men’s groups and organizations for suffrage existed as well, such as the Men’s Equal Suffrage League in Virginia. Members worked to support suffrage and raised funds.

My intention in these notes is not to diminish the work of any of the women who battled for suffrage, or sent in their nickels, dimes or dollars for the cause, but to encourage the telling of the whole story, which includes men working to support women’s fight for the vote. The more I read about women’s history, the more I see how so many women’s stories have been edited out of our history and all but forgotten. I hope women’s stories will get reintegrated back into our world history but not at the exclusion of the men who have stood with them.


Response: I avidly support the on-going battle women face in regards to our rights as individuals over our bodies, our money, and our future; but I cannot say that I completely agree with this article’s underlying message. Money did not fund the women’s movement. Spirit and strength did! To point out every victory gained by women as being financially backed by men is an insult, in my opinion, to the women who fought for freedom. Where were the men when leaders of the movement were being arrested or abused? I know that this article was most likely written to evoke the urge of other women now to donate, but don’t forget that women need to be urged to fight more so. Stand up and speak!!! That is what suffragists fought for for so long…Not money..and certainly not men’s money!

Sarah Herman and Jason Boniscavage

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